London’s Earliest Cinema Will Return
The Lumières, Auguste and Louis, had one year earlier invented their cinematograph, the first device that could show movie images to an audience.
Louis Lumiere would famously predict that “the cinema is an invention without a future,” but an undaunted audience viewed 10 short films of 50 seconds each, a program that then toured to great acclaim to New York, Bombay, Montreal, and Buenos Aires.
In a £6-million project, Westminster University is restoring and reopening a late-Victorian hall as the Regent Street Cinema with state-of-the-art projection and sound.
Christmas Eve of 1862 saw the premiere of Pepper’s Ghost, a popular optical illusion show by John Pepper and Henry Dircks. (The latter was a Liverpool engineer who created the Dircksian phantasmagoria, an apparatus for creating onstage optical illusions of translucent ghosts.)
For most of the next century it served as an institute of higher education, most recently as part of the University of Westminster. The theater was built into the hall in 1848, and boasted a 1,000-person capacity within its colorful, neoclassical interior. James Thomson, the architect of the original Polytechnic building, designed it, and it became a venue for scientific lectures and the presentation of travel and news shows.
On the strength of those accomplishments, Félicien Trewey, the Lumière brothers’ manager, chose the Polytechnic in 1896 as the natural venue for a cinematograph show. It took place on 20 February 1896, but two weeks later moved to Leicester Square due to popular acclaim.
The Polytechnic theater’s film history continued in the 20th century with the addition, in 1926, of gilded, embossed plaster details. In 1933, the cinema became an institute of higher education in cinematography that offered the United Kingdom’s first courses in film-making. In 1970, it became home to the UK’s first honors-degree film program.
But by that time, the hall had ceased to be used as a cinema.
In 1973, the building, which is situated within London’s central Conservation Area, won preservation listing.
Now, in a £6-million project, Westminster University is restoring and reopening the late-Victorian interior hall as the Regent Street Cinema with state-of-the-art projection and sound. Reopening is scheduled for 2014.
Already restored, since 2002, have been the building’s Grand Entrance Hall and gallery spaces, as well as its historic Compton Organ. Installed at the cinema in 1936, It is one of only two Compton organs functioning in their original locations. Plans for the hall restoration include making its pipework and percussion devices visible to visitors.
In July 2011, the Heritage Lottery Fund provided £100,000 for the project, as well as a promise of £1-million more. The MBI Al Jaber Foundation, funded by Sheikh Mohamed Bin Issa Al Jaber, has given £1-million, too,as has the Quintin Hogg Trust. The Higher Education Funding Council’s scheme to support philanthropy in higher education has matched donations, and public fundraising efforts are ongoing.
Uses for the restored venue include film screenings, lectures, workshops, and showcases of student films.
Directing the restoration is Tim Ronalds Architects, a London firm established in 1982. It specializes in arts, education, and public projects. Its award-winning projects include Hackney Empire which received a Royal Fine Art Commission/BSkyB Conservation Building of the Year Award.
Westminster has long had a well-regarded film school, with such graduates as producer Paul Tribijts, director Michael Winterbottom, and recent BAFTA award winning director Asif Kapadia.